1. What it’s like when someone dies in custody. An original report from prisoners


November 22nd will be 10 years since the death of Howard Hyde in custody. Hyde was tasered by correctional officers during a mental health crisis. His death also marks the last time there was a public inquiry in the province into a death in custody.

Image from thestar.ca

There have been at least seven deaths in custody since then in the province, and a dozen in New Brunswick since 2004. In the death of Matthew Hines, beaten and pepper sprayed, the officers lied about their use of force, and covered up their actions for months.

A post on Disabled Feminists summarizes Hyde’s death this way:

Howard Hyde had a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The treatments he was on were making him sick, so he stopped taking them. He became violent.

His wife called the mobile mental health team — a project in Halifax that will go to you rather than you needing to go to them. She then called 9-1-1.

Two days later, he was dead in police custody, having been tasered.

Various things went horribly wrong. Among them were — and continue to be — the police’s inability to deal with people who have schizophrenia, amongst other mental health related conditions.

What they should have done was taken him to the hospital. Which they did, for a bit, and then left, returning him to lock-up.

His wife had tried to contact them and make sure that he was okay, and that they were aware that he had schizophrenia.

“I really wanted him to be in the hospital and get the treatment he needed for psychosis,” she said.

He had been taken to hospital for assessment, and the hospital staff requested that he be returned to the hospital after his arraignment hearing. He was not.

Parts of the surveillance tape of the tasering itself are “missing”.

“Hyde began struggling when officers tried to cut the string from his shorts. Though images were not caught on tape, surveillance audio recorded sound of the scuffle. Edwards can be heard saying “Howard, sit down.” Fellow Const. Greg McCormack is then argued to have said “You’re going to be doing the f***ing dance next, Howard,” although his voice is muffled.

It was also revealed that more than 30 minutes of footage of Hyde in a cell waiting to be booked has gone missing.”

Image from cbc.ca

Judge Anne Derrick’s report made 80 recommendations aimed at improving how the health care and justice systems treat people with mental illness.

On June 16, 2016, Corey Rogers died in the police cells in Halifax. His mother asked why he was not taken to the hospital instead of being confined to a cell. Like Howard Hyde, a man in a health crisis was detained rather than being given treatment. On November 7, two officers were charged with criminal negligence in Rogers’ death (note that, as is always the case for articles about police who are criminally charged, there is no picture of the officers accompanying the article.) It is obvious that the report made in Hyde’s death introduced little or no changes for those held in custody.

Deaths in custody don’t happen in private. The other people in the cells or on the ranges witness what happens. Often they call for help and are ignored. They may be asking for help for hours for someone dying in front of them and are powerless to intervene. Their testimony about what happened is either not sought out, ignored, or discredited. Often they face retaliation if they speak out.

Given that we don’t even inquire into the death, it’s not surprising that there is no concern for the trauma experienced by the other people in custody who witness these deaths, and that they receive no counselling or support.

A Report from A Witness.

This is an account from a man who was incarcerated and witnessed a death in custody in this province. Without inquiries into deaths in custody, this account provides crucial testimony about how deaths in custody occur, how they are handled, the role of the police, and the aftermath that are hidden from the public.

This report is brought to The Examiner by a team of incarcerated people who worked together to provide this story. They will be paid for this work in providing original reporting on an issue about which there is very little transparency and where reporters struggle to access information.

Does the memory of seeing someone get hit by a car and die upon impact just erase from your mind by itself over time? Or the memory of being a first responder to an accident in which you’re incapable of removing the deceased driver from a car that has veered off the road?

I’m sure these two scenarios play in the back of the minds of those who are faced with these situations, forever and always burning an everlasting horror in their mind while they try to continue through life’s everyday struggles. What might you think one may suffer from after being arrested and placed in a cell next to someone who will end up taking their last breath that night, without a care in the world from the officers who put him in there?

Upon being arrested it is alleged that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but does that give them the right to assume you are a liar, or a cheat trying to get one over on someone, especially when it only involves getting someone a blanket or a sweater, or even a bottle of water to wash down the throw up they cannot control from coming up? Or an ambulance to return to the hospital they were taken from and considered medically cleared upon being arrested?

That night certainly turned out to be a gut-wrenching torturous night for a few of us, and fatal to one unlucky person. From my take of that night, sheer ignorance, disrespect and no regard for human life and total abuse of power and negligent human compassion played a major role to the outcome of that man’s life.

It’s understandable that the officers can get busy as they have many routine things to take care of, but when it comes to the word of four innocent guys placed in a holding cell next to the guy who’s been throwing up for hours, panting as if he’s in distress and sounding as if he’s on the brink of death, telling you he needs medical attention or at least some water to wash down the throw up he’s been choking on, our word was not good enough.

Not knowing any of us, why would the officers assume that we would want to sit there and witness this man die in the cell next to us? After specifically telling the officers we were concerned for the man’s well-being. Why would they assume that witnessing this man suffer for what seemed like 15 minutes of a useless CPR attempt we had to watch was what we signed up for that night? No matter how bad the situation is, no-one deserves to die that horrible death, especially when it could have been avoided with a simple call to the paramedics to find out why his condition continued to worsen. After all, they knew there was something wrong as it sure turned out to be, and fatal at that.

What surprised me the most about the horrific ordeal was the way the officers handled it afterwards, as if the night wasn’t traumatizing enough. Knowing we could have made a two-minute phone call and saved someone’s life, we were stuck in a cell watching and listening to this man suffer right down to his last breath.

The officers knowingly — and I believe purposely — left me, the one person who was in a cell were I witnessed it all unfold that night, down in police cells the whole next day, bullshitting me about paperwork so that I had no chance of getting to court on time, sabotaging my chance at running a proper bail hearing, forcing me to be remanded to the correctional facility because by the time the “paperwork” issue was fixed, court was closed.

Not only will I have to live now with the misunderstanding of why I had to witness someone lose their life in that terrible, terrible manner in which he did that night, but also I’ll forever have to live with the fact of knowing just how conniving and corrupt the police can get when it comes to you after a situation such as this one.

Just as sure as that night lives on in the few of us who were there and helpless to a man who clearly needed our assistance, I’m sure there’s a few of HRM’s boys and women in blue who carry the burden of the loss of that man’s life too, knowing his death was in vain. A situation like that leaves one’s mind suffering from bitterness and desensitized to the well-being of life, knowing that your life could amount to nothing in the blink of an eye within the custody of those who are employed to serve and protect.

This is my reason for not trusting the officers of the law, their misconduct of executing the process of protecting the public, and furthermore conducting negligent investigations for finding nothing wrong with what took place that night and the way they treated the other prisoners who were there that night. Would I be wrong to say at the the very least there was criminal negligence causing death, also failure of the duty to provide the necessities of life?

And I’m just one man. If you can believe the truth to my story your mind should automatically lead you to think of the countless stories of situations just as severe, if not worse, that may never be revealed. This is just my personal belief but it may resonate with some of you: “within every institution or organization for that matter, a lot of the time there will be some form of corruption.” I believe we would be naive to think otherwise.

That being said, we must stand firm behind the stories that do come out regarding such malicious behaviour and deal with them accordingly regardless of position of power or political influence if we are ever to live in a true democracy!

2. A historic account of a police murder of a striking miner in Cape Breton

While I was researching deaths in custody in Nova Scotia and searching for reports, I found this account of the police murder of William Davis in 1925.

Image from beatoninstitutemusic.ca

With Scot Wortley in the city last week gathering accounts of racial profiling and police misconduct, this historical case that shows the role of the police in protecting business interests, brutally suppressing dissent, and not being held to any account is of extra interest.

An excerpt:

The morning of June 11, the company police carried out a campaign of harassment and intimidation carrying out thug patrols within the town. In response striking miners organized a protest in which around 3,000 miners marched to the Waterford Lake pumping station and power plant. Their intention was to convince the scabbing company workers to support the strike.

When the striking workers arrived at the plant at around 11am the company police were waiting for them. Without warning the armed police charged the crowd on horseback opening fire as they came. Many workers were injured in the fusillade of over 300 rounds fired into the crowd. William Davis was killed by police in the attack with many understanding that he had been shot deliberately by the officer whose bullet struck him directly in the heart. The striking workers rallied and were able to enter the facility as police retreated.

Turning the Tide: Solidarity and Militance in the Face of Murder

In the days and weeks following the murder of Davis, miners stepped up their tactics and turned to direct action against company stores and other company properties in various communities throughout the Sydney Coal Field. Where the company was willing to take workers’ lives, the workers would target what was most important to the company, its property and profits.

While neither the provincial nor the federal government showed much concern over the company shooting of workers and murder of a striking miner, the simple threat to company property spurred them to immediately deploy the provincial police force and almost 2,000 soldiers from the Canadian Army. This would be the second largest military deployment against an internal target in the history of the Canadian state, the largest being the deployment against indigenous and Métis communities in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Of course, this would not be the last military mobilization against an internal target in Canadian state history with the military assault on the Mohawk communities during the “Oka crisis” being a recent egregious case. For those who cling to an illusion that the liberal democratic government of Canada is a peaceful one that this serves as a stunning reminder that the Canadian government has at various points in its history used military force against civilian, non-combatants. For some this might stand as an example of state terrorism.

Image from biographi.ca

3. A brief note on the first statue of women in the city.

On Thursday, I went to the unveiling of the new monument on the waterfront depicting the role of women volunteers during the Second World War.

Image from cbc.ca

There were many things that were wonderful about the ceremony. Charlotte Guy-Jeffies asking if she could hug the statue after she unveiled it was a moment of spontaneous joy that the whole crowd shared. Seeing so many elders who were being honoured and recognized in public was also significant, and the many older women who had worked as volunteers who were being seen and validating was an important moment.

At the same time, it’s not insignificant that the first statue the city puts up of women is in the context of war and militarism. Choosing the subject of war volunteers was no doubt a strategic move — who could object to honouring women who gave service to the country? While the Cornwallis statue is defended by the majority of the city, and council stalls on a process for even considering the impact of the statue, it’s obvious that committing acts of feminism in public spaces in Halifax must be undertaken carefully.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Given the proximity of the womens’ statues to Cornwallis, they also form a kind of commentary on the narrative about violence invoked by that statue. The women and girls are knitting, serving tea, and gathering scrap. This represents the reality of the activities allowed to women during the war, but it also suggests that while we readily honour men who kill and commit atrocity, we have consistently forgotten the women who have nurtured and created.

The Mi’kmaq woman knitting with a traditional basket on her lap must be read in this sense as a rebuke to the legacy of Cornwallis’ scalping proclamation against Mi’kmaq women and children. Despite this genocide, women preserved their traditions, survived, and thrived.

Image from cbc.ca

But I also note that it seems the only way to get women’s bodies into public space was by drawing on narratives about war. Choosing World War 2 as a subject essentially allows some feminism to be smuggled in under the protection of conservative-friendly tributes to militarism. So right now the only representations we have of women in Halifax in public space are of women serving tea to soldiers and knitting their socks.

It is of course years after this war that Viola Desmond is arrested and imprisoned for sitting in a whites-only section of the New Glasgow theatre, so Black women’s tea-serving during the war did nothing to give us human rights or equal treatment, and service to the state did not grant us any liberation.

I do not expect any time soon, in a city that thinks “war experts” are a necessary constituency on a panel about Cornwallis, to see any statues paying tribute to radical Black women like Lynn Jones, or to events like the occupation of the employment office on Gottingen.

Question: “When did you start anti-racist organizing. Was there a particular event?”
Answer: “Yes there was an ‘event’: I was born.”

I also do not expect to see any statues paying tribute to the community building work done by Indigenous and Black women towards our own liberation, liberation from the same state that demands our obedient service as “good citizens” while denying us humanity, while polluting our communities, while terrorizing us with racist police forces, while impoverishing us, incarcerating our children, and silencing and attacking us.

We are to be represented only to the extent to which our bodies serve the state, and to the extent to which we conform with feminine narratives about women’s roles as volunteers (free exploited labour) and appropriate gendered behaviour.

Again, it is no surprise that this is the imagery the city approves for the first statues of women, and until there are other images, this gender conforming representation is the only way we exist in public space.

This year, Betty Peterson turns 100. A leading peace activist, she was instrumental in this city’s long legacy of feminist anti-war organizing (at this link is an account of the actions undertaken in 1986 in anti-war organizing.)

Image from pier21.ca

In 2010, at the anti-war demonstration against the annual Halifax Security Forum (taking place this week at the Westin), Peterson delivered a speech condemning Cornwallis and calling for the removal of his statue and all other statues of colonial administrators.

Image from tonyseed.wordpress.ca

I would love to see a statue of Betty Peterson, Muriel Duckworth, and the many other feminist elders who led the peace movement in this city. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to see representations of women who challenged capitalism, patriarchy, and the racist colonial military machine. Women who took radical action, chaining themselves to bridges to protest nuclear arms.

There are many women living in this city who are refugees from war, conflict that the warships we build in Halifax and the military we train are part of. The Trudeau government has committed over 60 billion dollars in military spending in the next decade, at the same time as we can’t provide clean water on reserves, and nearly a quarter of the children in this province are living in poverty.

We don’t have the money to ensure affordable housing for women, or to fund education and employment programs that would help people get out of poverty, or to pay for the medication and medical care needed by women with disabilities, but we can invest money in war.

Image from globalnews.ca

And one way these wars are promoted is by careful mythologies that represent war as heroic, without showing the mutilated bodies, the raped women, the starving children, the millions of displaced people, the PTSD suffered by soldiers, and the destroyed families as a result.

We can’t ignore that this statue on the waterfront is in the same place that warships come in and out, and where soldiers are currently deployed. It does not just stand as a tribute to the past, but also takes part in how war is waged and understood by us in the present. This statue cannot help but also participate in how we think about war today, and how we persist in believing we fight on the side of the “good” and that war is just, necessary, and even kind and nurturing.

One day, I hope that alongside of the (deserved) monument to volunteers, we are also the kind of city that builds statues to women of peace, women struggling every day in their communities to bring about a more just world for everyone.

A note on subscriptions:

When I learned on Friday that Tim’s father had passed, I assumed I would be sleeping in today. I thought The Examiner would be the last thing on his mind this weekend. About an hour after that, I got the template for today in my inbox.

I’m telling you this because it shows you Tim’s commitment to this work, to The Examiner audience, and to the people who write for this site. The Examiner runs on subscriptions, and every time I talk to Tim about Examiner finances, his plan is always for hiring more writers, not for getting a bit more money for himself. (I wrote there that Tim’s “vision” was for more reporting, and then I thought about how much Tim probably hates that as a corporate word almost as bad as “innovation,’ and I laughed to myself and changed it.)

I’ve been writing for The Examiner for two and a half years now. For my first year writing here I was extremely broke, and The Examiner was what made me able to pay my rent. From the time I began writing, there’ve been lots of people who are supportive, and will say they love reading the column. Other people will say it’s not really their thing, but they just ignore it and read the writers they like (which is fine!). But some people will write Tim and say they’re getting rid of their subscription because of how I write about race in this city. That happens enough that it would be understandable if Tim told me he wanted to “go in a different direction” with the column, but he never asks me not to write something or to “tone it down.”

Sometimes people will also ask me why I don’t try to write somewhere else, like a paper or magazine in Toronto where there’s more circulation. I probably could if I wanted to, but there’s nowhere else where you can write however and whatever you want. Many publications pay less than $50 for a piece. Tim pays far more than the going rate for freelancers. Most columns are 800 words. I’ve written columns here that are nearly 10,000 words. The kind of space Tim provides doesn’t exist for any other publication, where you can write on your own schedule, choose your own topics, write as many words as you want, do whatever you want and not worry about page hits or rely on them to get paid.

Even in the relatively short time I’ve been writing this column it feels like there’s been a shift in the city. I’ve been writing and speaking about racial and political issues for a decade now (in poetry, and elsewhere) and for most of that time the way it seemed to go is if a news story came out, people would be upset and angry you were talking about race in that moment, but that was it. What feels like it’s changed is that now there’s a sense that if you speak about race, people will actively follow you constantly to harass or intimidate or rage at you. It’s a sustained kind of hatred. What I find bizarre is sometimes I’ll come across stuff where people are anticipating that I might write about a racial issue, just so they can attack and invalidate me for writing about it. Like they can’t wait for me to write about it so they can be angry about it and harass me for it. It’s strange. There’s a sense of menace now, of people out to get you, of people who cannot stand that someone like me exists.

My point here is that more than ever, spaces where Women of Colour can speak or write are becoming even more contentious. Providing that space is an extremely charged act now — one that opens Tim up sometimes to abuse, or to being tagged as an “SJW” (the 2017 version of nigger lover). There’s nothing neutral about Tim hosting writers like me or like Evelyn White when there’s so many people right now trying to silence Women of Colour and attacking us. Tim just keeps providing that space and encouraging my voice.

So basically, Tim’s a great guy with a lot of integrity, and your subscriptions are what keeps this space going. He works pretty much non-stop, even through the death of his father, to provide the writing here. And he is making space for Women of Colour to write at a time when that can actually be a business risk.

So even if you don’t love my writing, I really hope you can see how important is what Tim does, and either keep supporting The Examiner, or think about getting a subscription if you’re reading this for free. Click here to subscribe.

Thank you!

A smiling young Black woman with long wavy hair

El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. Spot on El! A very well written piece once again and I cannot wait for the day I see all those things happen too. Keep up the good work, you rock!

  2. For those who don’t like what El writes: Read her stuff, get angry if you must but just go away and think about it for a day, come back read it again, ask yourself: “Why would she write this? Since I’m not in her position, can I learn from what she says?” El Jones is a great educator. Thanks.

    1. I’ve made my disagreements with El clear before and there’s no need to repeat them – I also wholeheartedly support her writing on the prison system, although I think she forgets that those of us who are not incarcerated do have a right to be protected from the worst sort of people by the government.

      I think my problem with the writings of people like El Jones and other “SJWs” – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is because so much of what they do is centered around a narrative which goes something like this:

      Members of group X are special but vulnerable and oppressed by members of group Y, who are wicked creatures who wish to destroy group X, unless we do Z – and if you disagree, you’re part of group Y.

      It’s a popular narrative:


      Pick your X,Y and Z and you can make that story be about anything you want. Just like you can’t look at a cat picture without feeling a little warm and fuzzy, you can’t read a version of that story where the X,Y, and Z align properly with your identity and place in society without feeling a heady mix of affection for X, hatred for Y and motivation to do Z – which is exactly what that painting is about. It feels good. And of course, when someone tells a version of that story where you’re a Y (unless you obey the storyteller…), well, nobody likes that.

  3. Condolences to Tim and family.

    A couple with two school-aged kids open a coffee shop selling free trade coffee, locally roasted, and they charge a bit more for a vastly superior product than the coffee offered by that ubiquitous coffee shop. Their hours of operation, from 8 to 2:30, allow them to get the kids off to school and be there when they get off the bus. A few people, on social media, have whined about these hours. A vast number of people have raved about the coffee and service, and silently smiled at two novice business people putting raising their kids the way they want ahead of any customer or potential one that wants their latte NOW.

    The Examiner and the Spectator are ‘fair trade media outlets’ that do long-form journalism, stuffed with oodles of substance, and their news is better than any of the traditional print media, now dominated by two families in the Atlantic Provinces- very bad for quality journalism.
    Paying the $160.00 for the joint subscription “tastes” as good to me each day as the Guatemalan dark roast that I chuck three bucks for on a fairly regular basis. And, just like the Examiner and the Spectator, this small coffee shop DOES NOT HAVE A DRIVE THRU; How Cool Is That! Keep brewin’ the best in journalism; the customers are there, and there are more on the way.

  4. I would have hoped that in addition to seeing more “sustained hatred” you would also have noticed more empathy, more openness to reading your accounts and reporting, more comments like “I didn’t know that” or “I will be more conscious of that in future.” Your column opens windows on many issues that some of us haven’t really given much thought to in the past. But we are still reading, absorbing, considering, maybe regretting past attitudes or dismissiveness, and hopefully changing a little.